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Flood risk communications dialogue impacts Environment Agency methods

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The Environment Agency (EA) commissioned a public dialogue project on Flood Risk Communications (with Sciencewise support) which ran from November 2013 to December 2015. The independent evaluation report on the project was published in March 2016. As well as directly influencing EA activities to develop innovative methods and techniques to help individuals and communities understand their risk of flooding, the implications for wider risk management drew a wide range of other agencies into the project.

The dialogue project aimed to explore risk perception and response in relation to flooding, and to generate practical materials (messages, materials and approaches to the use of different media) designed to increase awareness, encourage engagement and improve responses to flood risk. It was also intended to provide a basis for agencies working with communities at risk of flooding to be more consistent and joined up in their communications and action.

The dialogue process was supported by a broad and highly experienced Oversight Group, which was set up before the detailed design of the dialogue to agree focus, support the process and enable action based on the outcomes of the project. The Group comprised members from 18 organisations including local authorities, government departments and the Welsh Government, universities and others. This very broad group not only provided a wide range of perspectives on the topics being discussed by the public participants, it was also able to take the dialogue results out into a wide range of institutions which understood how and why those results may be of value. The Group also ensured that the results were shared with a wider stakeholder audience.

The dialogue process included a literature review and mapping exercise, and a stakeholder event to identify the critical points in the current system that needed to be strengthened. Workshops for public participants were held in two stages in each of five locations between May and October 2014 with locations chosen for geographical diversity and different experiences of flooding (including non-flooding). A total of 98 public participants attended the workshops. A third stage workshop in Birmingham in November 2014 brought together 28 public participants (from each of the five earlier locations) with representatives from Public Health England, Red Cross, National Flood Forum and the Environment Agency. This workshop produced concrete recommendations to take forward. A final Oversight Group meeting reviewed the final report and developed an action plan which was further developed by the EA team.

The difference between the dialogue approach and market research was important for the Environment Agency, and contributed to the value of the dialogue approach for them:

“It is not just people saying ‘we don’t like your flood map’ or ‘we don’t understand them’ it’s a case of saying why? And also what would be better? In the past we have often done these things where we’ve asked people do you understand our maps? do you not understand? But because it is done in a market research setting we have never had the insights to describe why or an alternative … So the insights in to why it’s not quite right were really useful.” (Environment Agency)

Dissemination of the dialogue results was a core part of the project and started as soon as findings began to emerge from the workshops with the public, after which the Environment Agency team disseminated the results to other government departments, non-government organisation and corresponding government agencies elsewhere. The EA also disseminated the results to internal teams and at numerous national and international conferences including:

•    A seminar in September 2014 for the Flemish Environment Agency

•    The International Conference on Vulnerability and Risk Analysis and Management, and International Symposium on Uncertainty Modelling and Analysis, in Liverpool in July 2014

•    The Flood Defence Expo conference in London in December 2014

•    The European Geophysical Union conference in May 2015

The practical impacts of the dialogue became apparent even as the project was being completed. By November 2014, the Environment Agency had taken on board many of the project messages and specific findings in mock-ups of flood risk maps and communication materials (fliers, personal flood plans etc.). By February 2015 work had started to improve website access and information, revising flood maps, linking the work to coastal review recommendations.

Within the following months further actions ranged from the very tangible for directly public-facing flood risk communication roles (within the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, National Flood Forum) to more indirect impacts for those whose main role was to influence other agencies (such as Cabinet Office, Defra, DCLG, the Welsh Government, Flood Forecasting Centre). These stakeholders reported they would be pushing core messages through their communications to others, such as local authorities, flood forums and emergency service providers, who communicate directly with the public.

In December 2015, the EA formally reported the immediate impacts and plans:

“We are already using them to assist in our work with community groups, in the redesign of our new flood warnings system and our flood maps…. We’ve taken this feedback and used it in the redesign of our live flood warnings service, launched earlier this year. Now when you land on the page, you’re given an option to enter your postcode to search for warnings and river levels in your location. Although, the map is still available for those interested in the bigger picture. We’ve also taken on another recommendation by combining this information with advice on how to prepare for a flood.” John Curtin, Director of Incident Management and Resilience, Environment Agency.

The Agency also confirmed that:

"The results of this project will inform the way in which the Environment Agency presents its maps of flood risk and the way it coordinates with other agencies over these kinds of communications. The results will also help all agencies working with communities at risk of flooding to be more consistent and joined up in their communications and action." Environment Agency

Also in December 2015, the outputs of the dialogue were used to write a briefing note for the winter floods for operational staff in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire.

In January 2016, the dialogue was cited as a major influence on the EA’s plans to improve flood communications in evidence to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee one-day hearing on the winter floods.

In February 2016, the EA reported that it was continuing work to use the messages and learning from the dialogue project includes incorporating the results into the Agency’s digital services; refreshing communications channels – flood warnings and flood maps.

There are also plans to test the economic benefits of the new communications materials, developed as a result of the project, in two pilot projects to be completed by September 2016. Different materials are being tested in two different areas to see the effectiveness of the materials – effectiveness will be tested by measuring the number of people who sign up to the flood warning service. The Agency see this as a relatively crude measure but one that can be quantified quite easily. There are economic benefits associated with that, which can be quantified and then the benefits of the new materials can be quantified. If the approach is shown to work, it will be expanded to the rest of the country.

The dialogue continues to impact on the EA thinking about its future work:

“It’s changed our mind-set quite a lot  [within the Environment Agency]. One of the main things that it has done is that lots of people anecdotally knew we weren’t doing something quite right but didn’t have a solution or a reason to explain why not. …  it’s had quite a large impact. I’ve been working in the research team for eight years and it is the first time we’ve ever done a project that’s had this scale of impact. That’s where it sits in the grand scheme of things.”(Environment Agency)

Sciencewise (2016) Tracing the impacts of public dialogue projects supported by Sciencewise: Flood risk communications. Sciencewise March 2016. http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Publications/Sciencewise-Flood-Risk-dialogue-impacts-March2016.pdf

Public dialogues on flood risk communication. Environment Agency SC120010/R1. http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Publicdialoguesonfloodriskcommunicationreport.pdf

Public dialogues on flood risk communication. Evaluation report. Environment Agency SC120010/R2. http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Publicdialoguesonfloodriskcommunication-evaluationreport.pdf